Early years (1989-95)
DJ Shadow was experimenting with a four-track recorder while in high school in Davis, California (suburb of Sacramento metropolitan area) and began his music career as a disc jockey for the University of California, Davis campus radio station KDVS. During this period he was significant in developing the experimental hip-hop style associated with the London-based Mo' Wax record label. His early singles, including "In/Flux" and "Lost and Found (S.F.L.)", were genre-bending, merging elements of funk, rock, hip hop, ambient, jazz, soul, and used-bin found records. Andy Pemberton, a music journalist, writing for Mixmag, coined the term "trip hop" in June 1994 to describe Shadow's "In/Flux" single and similar tracks being spun in London clubs at the time. He has cited Kurtis Mantronik, Steinski, and Prince Paul as influences on his sample-based sound, further claiming that "lyrics (...) were confining, too specific." His music rarely features more than short clips of voices or vocal work.
During 1991-1992, DJ Shadow remixes were released on Hollywood BASIC, a short-lived rap/hip-hop subsidiary label of Hollywood Records. Notable amongst these is a 1992 compilation release titled "BASIC Beats Sampler", which features a remix of "The Real Deal", a song by Lifers Group, as well as a 12-plus-minute "Mega Mix" of the rest of the album, including tracks by west-coast underground hip-hop act, Raw Fusion and east-coast acts, Organized Konfusion and Zimbabwe Legit. Also in 1992, Shadow contributed scratching and production work to Sleeping with the Enemy, the controversial second release by rapper Paris.
Early in 1993, Shadow was a part of the creation of the Solesides underground hip-hop label, in conjunction with Blackalicious and Lyrics Born (whose stage name at the time was Asia Born). The first 12" release on this new imprint was titled "Entropy," with the A-side containing the Asia Born track "Send Them" and a dub rendition of the DJ Shadow track "Count and Estimate," and the entire B-side consisting of the 17-plus-minute title track. Rapper Gift of Gab is featured in the version of "Count and Estimate" that appears in Entropy. Shadow continued to participate in releases on the Solesides label for years to come, until the label was disbanded in favor of Quannum Projects.
Also in 1993, Mo' Wax's James Lavelle contacted Shadow about releasing "In/Flux" on the fledgling imprint. The association with Mo' Wax was a productive one; his tracks "In/Flux" and "Lost and Found" made their way onto some releases over the next few years. Shadow also worked with DJ Krush during this period. On a 1995 visit to the Mo' Wax Studios in London, England, Shadow was recruited to perform scratches on a James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy mix of the Massive Attack song "Karmacoma".
Shadow's first full-length work, Endtroducing....., was released in late 1996 to critical acclaim. Endtroducing would go on to make the Guinness World Records book for "First Completely Sampled Album" in 2001. The only pieces of equipment Shadow used to produce the album were the AKAI MPC60 12-bit sampling drum machine, a pair of turntables and a borrowed-by-visiting Pro Tools setup from an early adopter of the technology, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. In November 2006 Time magazine named it one of its "All-Time" 100 best albums. In November 2014, automobile maker Chevrolet used a sample of DJ Shadow's "Building Steam With a Grain of Salt" in a Chevy commercial.
Preemptive Strike (1998-99)
In 1998 Shadow released Preemptive Strike, a compilation of early singles. Later that year, he produced Psyence Fiction, the debut album by Unkle, a long-time Mo' Wax production team that featured guest appearances including Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Richard Ashcroft (The Verve), Mike D (Beastie Boys), Kool G. Rap, and Jason Newsted (Metallica), among others.
Dark Days (2000-01)
Around 2000 he produced the score for the documentary Dark Days filmed by British director Marc Singer. This film is about a community of transients who live underground in a subway tunnel. It has six award wins in various competitions.
The Private Press (2002-03)
Nearly six years after his debut production album, his second album, The Private Press, was released in June 2002. In the same year , the movie Scratch (2001, Doug Pray) was released to DVD with DJ Shadow appearing several times throughout the movie. A video for his track "Six Days" was also released in 2002, directed by Wong Kar-wai. The album was mixed by Jim Abbiss.
In Tune and on Time (2004-05)
In 2004, Shadow's first feature-length DVD, In Tune and on Time, was released. It features a live performance in London that emphasizes visuals.
The Outsider (2006-08)
The Outsider album was released on 18 September 2006. A special edition CD box set was also released containing The Outsider, the album on CD and a DVD entitled Tour Visuals. The Outsider, which prominently featured several artists from the local San Francisco Bay Area hyphy hip hop movement, got a mixed welcome among Shadow's fans. Responding to criticisms, the DJ/producer explained on his blog why he made no apologies: "Repeat Endtroducing over and over again? That was never, ever in the game plan. Fuck that. So I think it's time for certain fans to decide if they are fans of the album, or the artist." DJ Shadow has also collaborated with fellow DJ Cut Chemist. Together they have created three popular mixtapes entitled Brainfreeze, Product Placement, and the recent The Hard Sell. These mixes fuse jazz, funk, and soul. He has also collaborated with several other artists, including Blackalicious, Zack de la Rocha, Keak Da Sneak, Mos Def, David Banner, and Dr. Octagon, an alter ego of Kool Keith.
In 2006, he signed a deal with Universal Records. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist toured in 2008 in support of their mixtape The Hard Sell with Kid Koala opening for them.
Diminishing Returns (2009)
Diminishing Returns was a 2-hour DJ Mix originally broadcast on BBC Radio 1 on March 29, 2003. It was released in 2003 on CD in a pressing limited to 1000 copies on the Reconstruction Productions label. Reconstruction Productions reissued the album in 2009 with a sticker stating "official, last chance limited edition, re-release".
The Less You Know, the Better (2010-13)
During Shadow's Outsider 2007 tour, he was spotted filming with Dean Fernando (aka "DINO") as reported on Shadow/Quannum fansite Solesides. On April 1, 2009, DJ Shadow announced on his Facebook page that he was working on a Diminishing Returns re-release.
On March 7, 2009, Shadow announced that he was working on new music. Though no release date was given, he assured, "It will sound different from the last one." DJ Shadow released a track from the new album called "Def Surrounds Us" as a preview. While on the 2010 "Shadowsphere" tour new songs began to emerge, although he stated that a new album was not yet ready and that he would continue working toward having it ready in time for his 2011 tour.
On May 10, 2011, Shadow confirmed via his Facebook page and official website that his new album, titled The Less You Know, the Better, was finished and that it would be released the following September on Verve/Universal. The same day, he also released an EP called I Gotta Rokk featuring remixed tracks from the forthcoming album. A second single "I'm Excited" was also released, featuring Afrikan Boy, on July 29, 2011. However the single was pulled because of copyright infringement. The infringement also delayed the album's release. Another song from the album, titled "Warning Call," featuring Tom Vek, was released on 7 September 2011, and was featured as a free download on the official DJ Shadow Facebook page. Shadow announced on September 30, 2011 via Twitter that The Less You Know, the Better would be released on a 3xUSB format.
The artwork for this album, the associated singles and promotional material was done by Tony Papesh, an artist from San Francisco, California. The album was mixed by Jim Abbiss.
Liquid Amber (2014-15)
On August 12, 2014, Shadow launched his new record label imprint Liquid Amber, releasing The Liquid Amber EP for streaming in accompaniment. Other acts signed to Liquid Amber include Bleep Bloop, Noer the Boy, Mophono, and Ruckazoid.
In April 2015, a group called Nite School Klik released a single called "Posse" on Liquid Amber. In May 2015, Shadow revealed to Billboard that the group was in fact himself and trap producer G Jones working together. The first self-titled EP by Nite School Klik was released on June 9, 2015.
The Mountain Will Fall (2016-present)
In April 2016 Shadow announced a new album entitled The Mountain Will Fall, which was released on June 24 via Mass Appeal Records.